‘We are also human beings’: Quebec court authorizes $1B off reserve class-action against province, Canada

Quebec court

A lawsuit filed in a Quebec court alleges that Quebec and Canada discriminated against Inuit children in Nunavik’s 14 communities including Kuujjuaq. Photo: APTN.

After months of waiting, a class-action lawsuit brought by two Inuit women who say they suffered harm in the province’s child welfare system is proceeding against Quebec and Canada.

The action, brought by Tanya Jones and a woman who can only be identified as A.B., alleges that “Inuit in Nunavik have lived for decades neglected by the federal and Quebec governments. These Indigenous people have been forced off their traditional land and had their traditional ways of life disrupted by governments that coveted their natural resources but treated them as second or third-class citizens.”

The complaint, filed Feb. 21, 2022, alleges that both Quebec and Canada have “failed in providing basic child welfare and other essential health and social services” and seeks “reparations for the unequal treatment of Inuit and off-reserve Indigenous people in Quebec.”

In a statement by the law firm handling the case, Jones said she’s looking forward to her story being told.

“The whole reason why I decided to bring this case was so that I could come out of the shadows that child welfare cast over my childhood and my life to this day,” said Tanya Jones in the statement. “I wanted to find the courage to get back my voice and speak out about what happened to me and other Inuit children like myself. I wanted our stories and our truth to be told.

“I am happy that we get our day in court so that not only me, but all Indigenous children in Quebec affected by a broken system, like myself, can speak their truth and find healing.”

The case of Inuit living in Nunavik in sub-Arctic Quebec, claims that “systemic underfunding, neglect, and avoidance of their constitutional and legal duties to the Class, the Respondents failed generations of Indigenous children and youth who came into contact with the child welfare system,” and “withholding funding for basic child welfare prevention services available to non-Indigenous Québécois and Canadian children.”

According to A.B., survivors of the system need to be recognized.

“I still have scars on my body and face from the abuse I suffered as a child in care,” said A.B. in a statement released by the law firm representing the plaintiffs after the action was certified. “I feel shame in my own body, even now that I am a grandmother. A lot of Indigenous children like me went through this trauma. We are also human beings. I don’t want us to be left behind.”

Former senator Charlie Watt told APTN News in a 2023 interview that he hoped this class action will draw attention to the plight of Inuit.

“If it was truly left alone, it’s not going to be known to the world what’s happening to the Inuit kids. you know, Why are they taking their lives so much?” said Watt. Despite his decades of advocacy for Inuit, Watt says youth are still being separated from their parents into the foster system – a trauma that exacerbates the high addiction rates in Nunavik, the Inuit territory in northern Quebec.

“When they become 18 years of age, they just throw them out of the door and they on their own. So they’re not getting any counseling, they’re not getting any help whatsoever let alone that their parents or single parents also have gone through a trauma and in regards to the fact that the kids are being taken away,” said Watt.

In 2018, the Viens Commission, a panel examining racism in Quebec, reported that one in three youth in Nunavik would come into contact with children protection services at some point in their lives. Studies indicate that suicide rates in the region are ten times higher than in southern Canada, largely driven by people under age 25.

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Child welfare lawsuit by Inuit that claims system is racist waiting for judge’s decision

This claim mirrors a federal case that landed in the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in 2007. In 2016, commissioners with the tribunal found that Canada discriminated against First Nations children living on reserve in provinces and Yukon, by not funding child welfare programs at the same level as those off reserve. In July, Canada agreed to pay $23.4 billion in penalties to children and their families.

Like the case before the CHRT, the Nunavik claim also says Canada and Quebec withheld vital health services that are available to non-Indigenous children.

“The respondents deprived Inuit children who required essential health, social and other services (the Essential Services Class, defined below) of services that were substantively equal to those available to [non-Indigenous] children in Quebec and Canada,” the claim says. “The Respondents have been repeatedly admonished by parliamentary and other public institutions that Inuit children needing essential services face service gaps, delays and denials due to the gross underfunding of essential services in Nunavik. Instead of addressing these chronic failures, the Respondents evaded responsibility, and each pointed to the other as the one with the obligation and jurisdiction to provide the service needed by the Inuit child in need.”

None of the allegations have been tested in court other than the classification hearing.

There are class actions taking place in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario that are similar in nature. Quebec is the first jurisdiction to approve a case to move forward.

“The judgment authorizing this class action also cites decades of reports and studies into Quebec’s child welfare system that decried the lack of adequate funding and training that could have prevented or lessened the mass removals,” the statement from the lawfirm said. In one report on the state of the child welfare system in Nunavik, Quebec’s Human Rights Commission found “the fundamental rights of the children and young people, as recognized in sections 1, 4 and 39 of Québec’s Charter of human rights and freedoms, have been infringed.”

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